Nintendo Switch Review

Nintendo revolutionizes console gaming with the Switch

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4.5

Nintendo Switch

Nintendo Switch

 Lifewire / Zach Sweat

What We Like
  • Extremely portable

  • Great for local multiplayer

  • Relatively low cost

What We Don't Like
  • Graphics aren’t as good as other consoles

  • Lackluster online service

  • No Ethernet port, Wi-Fi only

The Nintendo Switch is a truly revolutionary device in the gaming world and an excellent console for those who are on-the-go or love local co-op.

4.5

Nintendo Switch

Nintendo Switch

 Lifewire / Zach Sweat

While the Wii U was a bit of a blunder, the Nintendo Switch has been anything but, having sold more than 100 million units worldwide. Initial concerns over the Switch's "gimmicky" functionality of being able to play at home and on the go are long gone. Though the Switch can't match current-gen console competitors in graphics, it has managed to carve out a niche.

Portability, excellent first-party games, family-friendly features, and access to many classic games through Nintendo Switch Online all make the Switch a console that punches above its weight. 

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Jordan Provost

Design: A tablet, a GameBoy and a home console in one

Nintendo seems to have learned a lesson from the Wii U, which featured a boring white console that looked like a network hard drive and a bulky toy-like gamepad. The build quality of the Switch looks and feels excellent throughout, with a basic body that’s essentially a tablet-like device and two detachable “Joy-Con” controllers. Nintendo offers a bit of fun here for those who want it, with the option to go with bright, electric-blue, and red Joy-Cons or basic gray for a more understated look.

In addition to the Switch itself and the controllers, the basic set includes a controller dock for combining the two Joy-Cons into one full-sized controller, a dock for connecting it to your TV, and the accompanying cables needed for everything.

The console is relatively small, almost unbelievably so, making it highly portable. On the device, there are two small stereo speakers near the bottom of the screen and one USB-C port for charging or connecting to the dock. At the rear, there are two more slots for cooling and a kickstand that also hides the Switch’s microSD slot for expanding storage. The kickstand is perhaps the biggest weakness of the console’s build, being somewhat flimsy and lacking any way to adjust the angle. The top of the Switch hosts a power button, volume control, vent, 3.5mm jack for headphones or mics, and a game card slot.

Portability, excellent first-party games, family-friendly features, and access to classic games through Nintendo Switch Online all make the Switch a console that punches above its weight.

The Switch works with many controller options, but it was designed from the ground up with the Joy-Cons in mind. Each side of the console has a metal rail designed to mount a Joy-Con. These mini-controllers can be snapped in place to facilitate holding the Switch like a portable console or removed for use when the Switch is either propped up by its kickstand or slotted into the dock. You can also use the Joy-Cons in a paired set as a single controller or separately so that two people can play together without needing an additional controller.

Each Joy-Con has two shoulder buttons (one bumper, one trigger), a four-way D-pad (the left are directional buttons, the right are X, A, B, Y), an analog stick, a menu button (- on the left, + on the right), and finally a screenshot button for the left and a home button for the right. Both include HD rumble, gyroscopic inputs, and motion controls for added utility, and they work pretty well in most applications. The right controller also has an IR camera and an NFC reader if you’ve got amiibos (toys-to-life figurines). To add them, hold the amiibo over the stick, and it’ll recognize it.

When you want to either charge them (note that they will only charge while docked) or play the device in handheld mode, take a Joy-Con, align it with the rail on the side of the console and then slide it down until it clicks, and locks into place. To remove it, press the small button near the top and slide it free. This process works flawlessly and is pretty genius on Nintendo’s part.

If you want to play the console in tabletop mode, remove the Joy-Cons, flip out the kickstand, and then use the controllers independently or connect them to the controller dock. One of the most excellent features of the design is that each Joy-Con can be used as a separate controller for multiple players, meaning you’ve always got two controllers for local multiplayer. You can use these with or without the bumpers to make it easier to use the shoulder buttons embedded in the rail, but they’re a little challenging to operate without.

Place the Switch in the dock to switch to the docked mode for playing on your TV like any other console. You can freely dock and undock the Switch without turning it off first, and your game will swap back and forth between your TV and the Switch screen if everything is correctly connected.

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Jordan Provost

Setup Process: Switch it on and play

Although the Switch has a lot going on, the setup process is surprisingly straightforward.

To get going in handheld mode, you need to snap the Joy-Cons onto the side rails, hit the power button on the top of the console, and you're ready to play.

Docked setup is a bit more in-depth but isn't too tricky. First, connect the dock to your TV with the HDMI cable, hook up the power cable and slide the console into the dock. You should see the screen on the Switch illuminate and show the battery level. Then, remove the Joy-Cons from the sides. At this time, you'll need to decide what form you plan to use them in. 

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Jordan Provost

You can use the Joy-Cons independently, use one by itself or attach both to the controller dock for a more typical console experience. Nintendo also sells its Pro Controller separately, and it has the look and feel of a standard game controller if that's what you prefer.

Pairing Joy-Cons seems a bit strange initially, but it's pretty easy. The Switch already has a connection to the Joy-Cons from when they were attached to the rails, so all you need to do is let the Switch know how you're using them. Whether using one Joy-Con sideways or two combined, press the left and right shoulder buttons down, and the Switch will automatically identify the orientation.

Once you've set up your controllers, the Switch will run you through the usual process for Wi-Fi, account creation (or login), etc. Then either pop in a game card or download one digitally to begin gaming.

Performance: Decent for single-player or local multiplayer, rough for online

The Switch’s functionality as a mobile and at-home console system works perfectly, but how does it perform while gaming? Let’s get into the details. The screen uses 720p resolution in handheld and 1080p docked. While that seems a bit behind the times when the current-gen consoles can render in 4K, it never bothered us. There were no significant drops in frame rate during my sessions either, so rest assured that Nvidia’s custom Tegra X1 seems like it’s got plenty of power for the Switch’s needs — don’t expect it to match up to an Xbox One or PS4, let alone a Series X or PS5. As for frames per second (FPS), it depends on your game, how many players you have, and if it’s online or offline. 

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Zach Sweat

For many games, the Switch is locked to a measly 30 FPS, though some have since introduced 60 FPS for certain games in specific conditions. For example, playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe while docked gets you 1080p at 60 FPS in single-player mode. That drops to 720p at 60 FPS in handheld mode, which still looks and feels OK on the Switch’s small screen. If you’re running a co-op game with three or four players, you’ll see the frame rate plummet to 30 FPS.

As you can see, it all depends on the conditions. Most games will perform better in docked mode, which makes sense. Despite these somewhat lackluster numbers, most people won’t care, and it didn’t detract from most games I tested. But if you’re used to playing a title like Doom at 144 FPS on your PC, then you will probably notice. It is at least consistent with those numbers.

The Switch is the ideal console choice for families, couples, or those who prefer local in-person multiplayer vs. online.

For single-player games, I tested a range of titles from first-party games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey to indie games like Stardew Valley and ports like Doom. With each of these, the Switch did a solid job of keeping up the frames and providing a pleasant gaming experience free of stutters.

I love this console's strong first-party lineup and the ability to play some good old couch co-op or multiplayer. With the Xbox and Playstation, you commonly need two consoles and an online connection for multiplayer, and many people don't want to pay the cost. With the Switch, you take off the Joy-Cons and hand them to a friend.

I tested local multiplayer with titles like Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Super Mario Party. Setting up and playing a few rounds of these games is so simple that even non-gamers find the Joy-Con easy to operate after a round or two. Because the setup and gameplay are so easy, this is perhaps the one area that the Switch beats out every other console on the market. The Switch is the ideal console choice for families, couples, or those who prefer local in-person multiplayer vs. online. Even with eight people playing Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the Switch performed well and exceeded our expectations.

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Zach Sweat

Now, this brings us to online multiplayer. Initially, the Switch launched without an online service like Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus, but in September 2018, Nintendo launched its Nintendo Switch Online service. This service is now required for online gameplay, with a handful of exceptions. Despite the service’s meager cost of only $20 a year (or $35 a year for a family plan that allows up to eight users, also available at $4 a month), many are frustrated with its capabilities. The service includes some nice perks, like access to classic NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, and Sega Genesis games, the Nintendo Switch Online smartphone app, Save Data Cloud (a long-awaited feature), and special offers for members. However, the feature set and functionality lag behind the other online console services.

Many functions of the service require you to use the app on your smartphone, like online voice chat (which falls short compared to Xbox or PlayStation). Instead of giving out free games for the current console as Sony and Microsoft do, you get a library of classic games, which is nice but not quite the same. The matchmaking and connectivity are okay, but due to the lack of an Ethernet port, the performance for online gaming is dismal compared to other consoles, relying solely on Wi-Fi. Note that you can get a dongle to add an Ethernet connection, but it is extra and not included in the box.

The Switch performs very well for single-player and local multiplayer experiences but suffers from the lack of an ethernet port and a handicapped online service, making it less than ideal for gamers who tend to play most of their games online—particularly competitively.

Software: Bland customization, yet easy to use

Thankfully, the cartoony and childlike aesthetics of the Wii U’s software are gone in place of a cleaner and more mature UI, much like the console. Because the Switch is also a tablet, you can use the touchscreen for most functions outside games (only certain games support the touchscreen), making for a much-improved UI navigation compared to those with only controllers. That means typing info out or browsing apps is a breeze, and the touchscreen is quite good.

Nintendo Switch
Lifewire / Jordan Provost

Turning on the Switch will bring you to a quick start screen where you can jump back into your most recently used game or app. You can also go straight to the main home screen by hitting the home button. You’ll see a long line of tiles for your games and apps here. You can scroll to the right or left to choose one or jump down to the lower row for things like news, the eShop, screenshots, controller settings, or the console’s settings. 

The bottom left also displays your current mode or controller setup (even the colors of the Joy-Con), so you know what mode you’re using. On the bottom right is a guide for what buttons you can use to interact with the options on the screen. At the top, you’ll find your profile and friends list. To the right of this, there’s a clock, Wi-Fi meter, and battery gauge. Currently, there are no themes or backgrounds aside from light and dark themes, but hopefully, they’ll add more in the future.

Battery Life: Low on juice

The primary concern with any mobile device like the Switch is the battery life. Because of its small form factor, the battery had to be pretty small. The lithium-ion battery inside is 4,310mAh. According to Nintendo, the Switch is rated for anywhere between 2.5 to 6.5 hours of runtime. It depends primarily on what you’re doing with it. For beefier games like Breath of the Wild, it’s supposed to last about 3 hours, which is about how long the Switch takes to charge fully (while in sleep mode).

Nintendo Switch
 Lifewire / Jordan Provost

During my extensive tests, I found these claims to be somewhat valid, give or take half an hour, depending on the brightness and whether the console was in Airplane mode versus online. With Airplane mode on and the brightness reduced, you can squeeze a little more juice out of it, but it’ll be hard to get more than 4 hours out of the Switch for most games. Battery life isn’t horrible, but you will want to find a suitable power brick to increase your lifespan (Anker sells a Nintendo-branded one). Since the battery is internal, you will have no option to swap it out for a new one when it inevitably starts wearing out. However, I didn’t experience significant dips in the battery’s performance during use.

Price: Affordable and competitive

Considering many consoles in the current lineup range from $200 to $500 depending on which version you pick, the $300 price tag of the Switch is both affordable and competitive. With that initial cost, you also get two controllers, so you can avoid the age-old issue of buying an additional controller alongside your expensive new console to play local multiplayer.

Considering many consoles in the current lineup range from $200 to $500 depending on which version you pick, the $300 price tag of the Switch is both affordable and competitive.

Other costs you may need to consider are that additional Joy-Cons (which you’ll need to play four-player games) will run you about $70 (note that price essentially includes two). The online service required for most online games is $4 a month or $20 a year, making that the cheapest (aside from PC). Lastly, most first-party games are pretty expensive and rarely go down, but there are a ton of good indie games for cheap out there as well. All of this makes the Switch one of the most inexpensive consoles around.

Nintendo Switch vs. Valve Steam Deck

Nintendo didn’t set out to compete with Microsoft or Sony with the Switch, and it shows. The Switch didn’t even come close to the PS4 or Xbox One, and the gulf is wider between it and the current-gen systems. Those consoles aren’t portable, but an unlikely challenger has emerged in that area: the Steam Deck.

Valve’s Steam Deck is a bit bigger and heavier than the Switch, but they have the same essential form factor, and they’re both portable systems that you can dock and connect to a TV.

The most significant difference here is software, with the Steam Deck playing a massive variety of PC games thanks to a bit of Linux wizardry. The Switch has a significantly smaller library but a solid lineup of exclusives. You can’t play Wind Waker or Super Mario Odyssey on the Steam Deck, at least not legally.

The Steam Deck is significantly more powerful than the Switch, with a faster processor, four times the RAM, more storage, and a slightly higher resolution screen. The Switch still wins the portability war, though, as the Steam Deck weighs in at nearly 1.5 lbs, while the Switch tips the scales at about 0.9 lbs.

The Switch’s Joy-cons make it better for impromptu multiplayer sessions, and that’s really what the Switch is all about. If you want a more powerful handheld that’s technically portable, the Steam Deck is worth a look.

Final Verdict

An innovation in gaming.

The phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none” sums up the Switch pretty well, but that isn’t a bad thing. It does a whole lot well when it comes to portability while being forced to make a few sacrifices in hardware, which doesn’t detract from the incredible gaming experience.

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Specs

  • Product Name Switch
  • Product Brand Nintendo
  • UPC 045496590093
  • Price $299.99
  • Release Date March 2017
  • Product Dimensions 4 x 9.4 x 0.55 in.
  • Color Neon blue and red
  • Dock Dimensions 4.1 x 6.8 x 2.12 in.
  • Console Weight 10.5 oz.
  • Dock Weight 11.52 ounces
  • CPU NVIDIA Custom Tegra X1
  • GPU NVIDIA Custom Tegra X1
  • RAM 4GB
  • Storage 32GB internal, one micro SD slot (up to 2TB)
  • Console Ports USB-C, 3.5mm audio jack
  • Dock Ports USB Port (USB 2.0 compatible) x2 on the side, 1 on the back, System connector, AC adapter port, HDMI port
  • Screen Multi-touch capacitive touchscreen / 6.2-inch LCD Screen / 1280 x 720
  • Battery Lithium-ion battery/4310mAh
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